Dark, desolate and downright frightening, the dystopian universe where this series of extremes features a misogynistic worldview that rings very close to present day lived reality
As The Handmaid’s Tale wraps up its fourth season, reviews and opinions, debates and discussions online proliferate. Adding another one to this list of reviews isn’t my intention.
I write this solely to record why I absolutely love this series. Most times, when I tell friends and fellow streaming bingers about it, they tend to scrunch up their noses and state that it’s too bleak and dark for their tastes. Perhaps as a feeding mother, when I was a bundle of emotions and nerves, I probably would have said the same. For this show is about stealing children, re-christening them and re-designating them to ‘suitable’ parents in an ultra-right Christian military state. It’s about women being forced to become sex slaves, under the garb of pious religiosity and fertility ‘ceremony’, just because they can give birth. It is also about a frightening world where pollution has deemed most women unfit to bear children, many men infertile and the global birth rate is plummeting everywhere.
June Osborne is forced to become a handmaid to a diabolical couple, the Waterfords. Her daughter has been taken from her and given to some family while she has been enslaved, beaten, tortured and branded with an ear cuff. Elizabeth Moss, without doubt the biggest star and most dependable actor on TV, who won’t need validation from awards or critics after her repertoire of work, plays June, now renamed Offred, while she fights, protects her fellow handmaids and keeps endeavoring to escape Gilead, the dystopian nation that has taken over most of USA. And she keeps searching for Hannah, her lost daughter. Her life as handmaid has made her into a different person, as it has to her women friends recast as red robed, demure slaves to ‘commanders’ that try to impregnate them.
There’s lots of blood, gore, severing of limbs, hanging of people, stoning to death, solitary child birth, killing and beating. There’s rape too. You get the picture. It’s not happy. But in defense of this series, it is outstanding in its presentation of a dystopian world where everything is very different. It is part feudal and part exploitative. Women, including wives and housekeepers called ‘Marthas’, serve men who are either ‘eyes’ (spies and violent law enforcers) and ‘commanders’ (men of government). Everyone wears standard colors, there’s very little joy or merriment. Churches loom over landscapes, and supermarkets have limited food or supplies. And children, rare and regulated within Gileadian ways of life, are a sight for sore eyes here. The sheer magnificence of this world, which is fighting pollution and a decimation of the human race with cold calculated cruelty and state sponsored sexual violence, is completely immersive.
And then there’s the reality of Elizabeth Moss’s character. The ways and means in which she survives through the relentless punishments that she suffers are not believable. No person can live through such pain and mental torment. But she does. She symbolizes revolt and wrath of women that have been wronged simply because they are fertile.
Moss’s husband, Luke and her best friend, Moira, (also a fellow handmaid who is then forced into prostitution in Gilead before she escapes), are integral to her life. She is an independent woman who loves her family, in contrast with her opinionated, feminist doctor mother. Their influences and journey are equally significant to her story in this series, as are those of Nick and Commander Lawrence, men who help run the ugly machinery of Gilead.
But as Moss had mentioned in an interview, look around you, women and girls being forced into sex slavery; people being forced into slave labour; still happens. A simple search on Google typing Yazidi women and Nigerian sex slaves will throw up multiple stories. ISIL offered their explanation for routinely raping Yazidi women as ‘spoils of war’ under a Hadith and also stated that as idol worshippers, they can be raped and mutilated at will. Horror stories from Nigeria proliferate. Closer to home, an unofficial investigation in sex workers’ areas in our cities throw up multiple cases of Nepali women and poverty stricken girls being ‘sold’ or ‘traded’ into prostitution. One close look at the number that the ILO (International Labor Organization) throws up shocks you. At this point of time, about 40.3 million people are living life as slaves. Post the pandemic; given shattered economies and growing unemployment, this number is bound to spiral across the Third World.
The role of entertainment is to lighten our moods and lift our spirits for sure. Which is why I enjoy watching Bridgerton (Netflix). It’s smart writing and intelligent storytelling with soothing visual imagery. In sharp contrast, The Handmaid’s Tale, a little stretched in its story and context in its 4th season, shakes you up. It might worry you and make you anxious. But it’s focus – that the hold of independent women, anywhere today, on power and their rights is tenuous – is an important point to remember. And it’s fabulously made.